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When Healthy Habits Go Too Far

How to keep healthy behaviors from becoming harmful

Enews healthy habits august 2012

How to keep healthy behaviors from becoming harmful

A five-mile run first thing in the morning, rain or shine. A low-fat vegan diet. Hot yoga. Counting calories.

What could possibly go wrong with routines and habits that are intended to keep you healthy?

Plenty, according to Scripps psychologist, Tarane Sondoozi, PhD, if that habit turns into an obsession, compulsion or addiction. “Any habit has the potential to become problematic, including something as simple as a personalized cup of coffee,” she says. “If this beverage becomes so central to my lifestyle that I can’t function without it; if my mood or sense of physical well-being is contingent on having my special coffee; or if I cannot live or function without my must-have drink, then it’s affecting my life and those around me. It’s become an addiction.”

How healthful becomes harmful

While too much rigidity in one’s daily routines may not cause much harm beyond emotional reliance, other healthy habits can be destructive. Rigid control of caloric intake can become a full-fledged eating disorder. Working out in excess can lead to exhaustion, depression, injuries and even permanent damage. Stringent dietary rules can lead to malnutrition or metabolic disorders.

The key to keeping healthy habits genuinely healthy is moderation and balance, Dr. Sondoozi says. “Habits, obsessive-compulsive behaviors, and addiction all lie on a continuum. If you’re running so much you’re neglecting your relationships — that’s probably crossed the line. If you feel you can’t go out with your friends because they’re congregating at a place that serves food cooked with trans fat, you might have a problem that needs addressing.”

Identifying addictive behaviors

Addiction happens when people use a substance or engage in activity to alter their mental or emotional state and they feel compelled to engage in the behavior at any cost. It may initially be pleasurable, but eventually it becomes a source of anxiety, fear, uneasiness or worry. At that stage, the emotional investment in the behavior has the earmarks of obsessive-compulsive disorder.

As the substance or activity begins to negatively impact the individual, it interferes with life, relationships and the responsibilities of daily living. When an individual is unable to stop, despite damage being caused by the behavior, they have developed an addiction.

Surprisingly, people who have developed a dysfunctional relationship with a once-healthy habit may not even be aware that they are out of control. They may deny that their behavior is interfering with life. Psychologists have even developed an exercise addiction screening tool that can help people understand whether their habit is beneficial or harmful; it may be helpful in an assessment of other habits as well.

Extreme habits may initially stem from a desire to gain control and cope with anxiety and stress, but paradoxically, they end up out of control. “If you exercise to live better and be well, you are creating and maintaining healthy habits,” Dr. Sondoozi says. “If you live to exercise, there may be a problem. You may need help getting back to a more balanced place.”

Denial is one of the main characteristics of addiction, so the first step to recovery is the awareness and admission that there is a problem. “You’re addicted when you know at some level that what you’re doing is harmful, either to yourself or to others, but you can’t or won’t stop,” says Dr. Sondoozi. “Once you acknowledge that, you can start your path to recovery.”

At this point, a primary care physician or a behavioral health professional can help identify tools and resources to help bring a problem habit back under control.